Big Data for Literary Studies: Notre Dame Associate Professor Matthew Wilkens

I work on American fiction, primarily after
the second World War, but I do it in a way that’s a little unconventional. It’s primarily computational and data-driven;
you might think of it as something like big data for literary studies. A lot of the questions are in some sense the
same ones that literary scholars have long asked, but we do it with respect not just
to one or two or half a dozen books at a time, but to hundreds or thousands or these days
even potentially millions of books. How you work with that much text becomes an
interesting problem for computer scientists and I’m not sure you ever want to be an interesting
problem for computer scientists. It means you have something very difficult indeed,
but that does happen and so I work with the Center for Research Computing here at Notre
Dame. I also work with the Center for Digital Scholarship
in the Libraries here so there are resources around to help scale up that work from what
works very smoothly on your laptop to what needs a cluster or supercomputer. We examined twentieth century American fiction, so from about 1900 up to the present, looking for genres. What we found is that we were indeed able
to identify some of the standard genres, things that wouldn’t surprise you. It’s not very hard to find detective fiction:
there are detectives and guns and somewhat surprisingly offices and telephones and that
sort of thing really stand out in detective fiction. What we didn’t really expect to find and
what really stood out in that research was a cluster of pretty prominent sort of near-canonical
books by white male authors published between the 60s and the 80s, that is to say, it is as heavily
marked by the kinds of conventions, the kinds of narrowness of scope that we find in West
Coast detective fiction of the seventies, it really is that specific. You see some of the
great writers of suburban angst in the early part of the period, the Cheevers and
Updikes or Richard Yates. You also see some authors who hang around
sort of right at the margin of the main literary canon, so Stephen King is in there, or James
A Michener. That really was a shock, and it was a shock
I think because our professional understanding of literary fiction as opposed to detective
fiction or Westerns is that it’s a kind of anti-genre. What these books have
in common if anything is that they don’t look like anything else, but that just isn’t true.
And that I think should produce some real changes in the way that we teach literature
to our students and in the way we think about it in the profession.

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